Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre) – theatre review

Trent Dalton’s debut novel Boy Swallows Universe captured hearts and minds and became a bestseller. It must have been a daunting prospect for playwright Tim McGarry to adapt the sprawling saga of nearly 500 pages for the stage, but if any doubts existed that his beloved story could morph successfully into a performance piece, they have been dispelled.

Somehow, Queensland Theatre’s production, directed by Sam Strong, has managed to retain all of the main storylines in a fairly tight distillation of this often very wild tale, which borrows heavily from Dalton’s youth. It is playing as part of the Brisbane Festival.

Central to the play achieving its heights is Trent Dalton lookalike, Joe Klocek, who is the main character, Eli Bell. Playing between the ages of 13 and 19, 26 year-old Klocek carries the story and is in practically every scene. He is ably supported by a host of other excellent actors. They include Michala Banas as Eli’s troubled mother, Frankie, Anthony Phelan as Eli’s criminal godfather Slim Halliday and crime boss Tytus Broz, and Tom Yaxley as August Bell, Eli’s brother. After a traumatic incident, he decided to stop talking. Instead, he writes his thoughts in mid-air with his finger. Andrew Buchanan is impressively hateful as the domestic abuser, Teddy, while Hoa Xuande is hilarious as Darren.

Photos by David Kelly/QPAC

Obviously when adapting such a long book for a play, elements have to be sacrificed. For instance, the early scenes in Darra, when Eli’s mother and stepfather are involved with Vietnamese crime gangs and heroin dealers, seem to be far less part of the action. Time also appears to move much faster, with August not seeming taking any time to start verbalising (something that didn’t happen until well into the novel).

One of the reasons the book seemed to be so well loved was the juxtaposition of gritty reality and magical realism. One minute you are in Boggo Road Gaol, where Eli has been smuggled in to see his mum on Christmas Day. The next you are witnessing one of August’s cryptic premonitions seemingly coming true against a horror movie-style backdrop in outer suburbia. It’s quite a ride.

Visually, the play is impressive, with the sparse set design enabling three walls of large video footage (Renee Mulder is the designer, while Ben Hughes is responsible for lighting and Craig Wilkinson for video design). I must mention the iconic 1980s’ soundtrack with songs by the likes of Hoodoo Gurus, Blondie and The Saints.

Boy Swallows Universe deals with childhood trauma and the evil men perpetrate. Not all men, of course, but Eli does ponder the question about what makes a good man. He has seen plenty of men who are far from that and would like to grow into a good man himself … and live in The Gap. After all, the leafy suburb does have wonderful cul-de-sacs, which Eli seems to think is the ultimate positive aspect working in its favour.

Boy Swallows Universe is playing at Playhouse, QPAC until 9th October, 2021.

Vicki Englund

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